Obituary: Professor Walter Bartley
Tuesday 30 August 1994
WALTER BARTLEY's path to becoming a university professor of biochemistry and later a Dean and Pro Vice Chancellor at Sheffield University was, to say the least, unconventional.
Bartley had spent his early years in Brighton and was educated at the local grammar school. Yet, because of family circumstances, he did not go on to higher education but left school to become a technician at Brighton College of Technology in the early Thirties where he helped to prepare biology classes, including those for summer schools run by academics from the zoology department at Sheffield University.
At the outset of the Second World War, Bartley registered as a conscientious objector and was dismissed from his post. Fortunately his contacts with the Sheffield zoologists led to his becoming a volunteer in a study of scabies being directed by Kenneth Mellanby at the Sorby Institute in the city. His arrival there in November 1940 could not have been more dramatic, since on the first night he was not only bombed out of the Scala Cinema (by coincidence, later part of the Department of Biochemistry at the university), but also out of his hotel. At the Sorby Institute, where he met his future wife, Mella, the work with scabies was followed by studies on Vitamin A deficiency and night blindness; and Vitamin C deficiency and scurvy directed by Professor Hans Krebs.
At the end of the war Bartley accepted Krebs's offer of a post as technician in the Department of Biochemistry at Sheffield University. Under Krebs's guidance, the department was an international centre of excellence for biochemistry and Bartley readily acknowledged the first-rate training he obtained from the outstanding individuals about him. At Krebs's suggestion, he went on to become a mature student at the university and emerged with First Class honours in physiology. He completed a PhD under Krebs's supervision and then became a member of the Medical Research Council Unit for Cell Metabolism Research which Krebs directed.
Bartley's association with Sheffield was interrupted when, in 1954, he moved to Oxford when Krebs was appointed to the Chair of Biochemistry there. I never gained the impression that Bartley was totally happy with his experiences in Oxford. Although his research work went very well and he developed a great interest in energy metabolism and mitochondrial function it was difficult for him to come to terms with the apparent lack of acceptance of newcomers by university staff. He was also concerned by the lack of facilities for postgraduates and was therefore pleased to be associated with the creation of Linacre House, which provided accommodation to those not affiliated to a college.
In 1963 Bartley was appointed to the Chair of Biochemistry at Sheffield University and renewed an association with the city that continued to the end of his life. He rebuilt a department which had been depleted by the 'brain drain' to the United States and amongst others appointed J. R. Quayle (later Vice-Chancellor of Bath University) and L. M. Birt (later Vice-Chancellor of the University of New South Wales) and three members of a Medical Research Council group studying intracellular organelles under his direction, as senior lecturers.
As a member of that group and later of the university staff I was able to admire the way he achieved an expansion of teaching and research in the department. He pursued research on adaptation to stress in mammals while encouraging his staff to follow their own areas of interest. He was an excellent head of department, prepared to encourage the development of others by giving responsibility to those, however inexperienced, he thought could cope with it. When he delegated to others he always supported their decisions even when he did not agree with them. He was a dedicated teacher who together with P. Banks and L. M. Birt wrote an innovative textbook for medical students, The Biochemistry of Tissues (1968). Together with his wife he helped his staff through their various problems, entertained them and took an interest in their offspring.
Bartley's administrative skills and integrity made him a most successful Dean of the Faculty of Pure Science from 1972 to 1975 and for the last four years of his service to the University a Pro Vice Chancellor. There is no doubt that his conscientiousness took a heavy toll on him and I suspect he much regretted being taken away from laboratory work. But on retirement, apart from having more time for the gardening he enjoyed so much, he returned to the bench, initially at the Wolfson Institute for Biotechnology within the university and in more recent years to work in my own laboratory, in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. He maintained the high standards he had achieved throughout his career and established an excellent rapport with the technicians and research students.
There is little doubt that Bartley's background and training contributed a great deal to producing a very caring man with a considerable determination to succeed. Although his occasionally blunt and direct manner could intimidate some staff as well as students, he had their interests at heart and many individuals owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts on their behalf. He was an exceptional man who never allowed personal differences to cloud his judgement and appreciation of the achievements of others.
It was a great privilege to have worked with Walter Bartley and I shall never forget the brevity and clarity of the advice he gave. It was exemplified by his comment when I became head of his old department: 'Remember that you can only resign once.'
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